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Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974)
Choral Music: Mass in F, Op. 51 (1934) [33:04]; I Sing of a Maiden (words: 15th Century) (1945) [2:22]; Offertorium in Ascensione Domini (1965) [2:32]; Missa Brevis, Op. 89 (1963) [11:37]; To Sleep, Op. 94 (words: John Keats) (1965) [6:39]
Clive Driskill-Smith (organ)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 16-17 March 2006. DDD
NIMBUS NI5852 [56:21]

Experience Classicsonline


 
While CPO has carried the evangel for the Wellesz symphonies Nimbus have also done their bit. They recorded the string quartets 3, 4 and 6 on NI 5821 with the Artis-Quartett Wien; we can hope for the rest. Nimbus take up the standard again with a splendid if brief survey of the music for chorus and organ.
 
Wellesz was Viennese-born and studied (1904-5) with Schoenberg about whom he wrote a still well regarded study in 1921. His specialities as a staff member at the Vienna University from 1913 to 1938 were Viennese opera and Byzantine music the latter of which became an avocation and drew from him a number of standard reference works. Alongside and interacting with these academic streams he wrote music – a lot of it. His stage works include Alkestis and Die Bakchantinen. Attending in 1938 a performance by Bruno Walter of his Prosperos Beschworungen in Amsterdam he heard news of Hitler's annexation of Austria. Emigration to England resulted in internment on the Isle of Man to be released only after intercession by RVW. He settled in Oxford as a member of the university staff and made that city his home.
 
He composed an extensive amount of liturgical music including five masses. The Mass in F is the most extensive work in this collection. In fact it takes up more than half the fifty-six minute playing time. The Mass carries a Byzantine impress but blended with a strong infusion of romantic sensibility. This is not music of cold worship. The passions can be felt through a white choral heat. This is heard most expressively in the stratospheric singing for choristers and altos; there are no female voices here. The music might be compared with that of Herbert Howells but with the complexity and harmonic intricacy filtered down. The Sanctus with its alternating solos above a humming organ rises to majestic heights. There’s just a hint of Plainchant in the Benedictus.
 
I sing of a Maiden, a poem favoured by Bax and Hadley, here receives the simplest lyrical treatment. Wellesz makes intelligent use of the burly edge of the boys temperaments. The little Offertorium is cut from the same plain honest singing ‘cloth’ though it dates from two decades after Wellesz’s deracination and settling in England. The Missa Brevis is again in the line that finds art in simplicity. He takes the courageous way of the composer who exposes his invention to the critical ear without the density of artifice. The romantic bloom of the Mass in F reigns again in the superb Benedictus at tr. 12. The only completely secular work here is the hypnotically caressing setting of Keats’ To Sleep. It is the most harmonically complex yet aptly lulling piece. Despite his embrace with dodecaphony in the later symphonies these choral works steer well clear of any such influence.
 
One is left longing to hear the Kleine Messe for three equal female voices unaccompanied (1958) and the 1937 Schönbüheler Messe for female choir, orchestra and organ.
 
The words of To sleep and I sing of a maiden are printed in the booklet.
 
The notes are in the safe and insightful stewardship of Calum Macdonald.
 
The sound is as clear as a bell and superbly rendered.
 
These works fit with individuality within the compass of the English choral tradition and will appeal on the broadest front.
 
Rob Barnett
 
 


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